What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

In the span of 30 years, sports documentaries have gone from a niche subject area most broadcasters avoided to must-watch television events. Recent series like The Last Dance, Cheer, and Last Chance U, are immensely popular among sports fans and non-sports fans alike. Sports documentaries are also receiving more critical acclaim than ever before. Three of the last four Oscar winners in the documentary feature category have been sports films — OJ: Made In America (2017), Icarus (2018), and Free Solo (2019). And this year’s Academy Award winner for best documentary short was Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl). 

We may be living in the golden age of the sports documentary or just beginning to see the potential of a new form of storytelling. Either way, there are some fantastic sports stories out there.

Here’s our list of our favorite sports docs in no particular order.


Advertisement
Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Hoop Dreams (1994)

A list of the greatest sports documentaries with no mention of Hoop Dreams should not be trusted. In 1994, networks weren’t interested in sports films. But a group of indie filmmakers captured 250 hours of footage of two rising Chicago basketball stars over five years. Viewers watch two teenage kids with dreams of reaching the NBA, Arthur Agee and William Gates, as they develop into young adults and talented players. The film was historically snubbed at the 1994 Oscars (it wasn’t even nominated for best documentary) but it is still widely considered to be one of the greatest sports docs of all time.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

$chooled: The Price Of College Sports (2013)

Do you ever wonder how college sports, a billion dollar industry built on the backs of unpaid labor, got so corrupt? $chooled will answer your questions. The film outlines the history of “amateurism” and the subsequent term “student-athlete,” a phrase we still live with today. The U.S. is the only country on earth where “big money” sports are played at colleges and universities. The film argues that these institutions are more concerned with athletic revenue than the academic development of the “student-athlete.”

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Free Solo (2018)

Alex Honnald’s free solo climb of El Capitan may be one of the most impressive athletic feats you will ever see. But Free Solo doesn’t merely show Honnald’s assent, it gives viewers a behind the scenes look at the athlete training to climb without a rope and the filmmakers, who could capture their friend falling to his death at any moment. Even though you know the outcome, this film will give you sweaty palms or white knuckles for the duration of the feature. This high-stakes story and the beautiful adventure cinematography helped Free Solo win an Oscar in 2019.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

OJ: Made in America (2016)

In this Oscar-winning series, Director Ezra Edelman uses the life and trial of O.J. Simpson as a means to tell the story of Black American experience in the mid- to late-20th century. Simpson, once one of the most celebrated athletes in the country, transcending race and culture, sees his country club world come to an end once put on trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Every episode documents the history of O.J. and the pivotal moments that defined his career; from outrunning the competition to outrunning the law. The doc also examines the policing of Los Angeles over the last 50 years and the country’s racial divide over the verdict.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Les Bleus: Une Autre Histoire de France (2016)

Directors David Dietz, Sonia Dauger, and Pascal Blanchard, believe soccer is a mirror of French society. Their documentary tells the story of France’s men’s soccer team and French politics from 1996-2016. The 20-year period saw a World Cup win, the rise of European nationalism, and disappointing finishes from “Les Bleus” on the international stage. The film is packaged as a way to better understand French history and culture through soccer.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

June 17, 1994 (2010)

June 17, 1994 was one of the most eventful days in sports history. Sixteen years later, Brett Morgan released June 17, 1994, arguably one of the most underrated 30 for 30 documentaries. Morgan uses archival footage and interviews to chronicle the day’s event. He strings Arnold Palmer’s last U.S. Open, the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup parade, the ’94 World Cup, Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco chase, together to create a fascinating sports story of a remarkable day.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Judging Jewell (2014)

Before Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood blockbuster Richard Jewell, ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts released Judging Jewell. The doc tells the story of Atlanta Olympic park security guard, Richard Jewell. When a bomb explodes at Centennial Park during the ’96 Olympics, Jewell is immediately hailed as a hero for identifying the explosive and clearing the scene. But soon after, the FBI’s investigation turns toward Jewell, and newspaper reports publicize his possible involvement, as he becomes a prime suspect before being fully exonerated.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

Dogtown and Z-Boys takes you into the dirty, grungy early days of urban and drained-pool skateboarding and the pioneers that revolutionized the sport, taking into the aerials we have today. Before there was Tony Hawk, there was a rebellious skateboard team from Venice Beach, California known as the Zephyrs, or Z-Boys, a rough crew of street skaters with names like Tony Alva, Jay Adams and the film’s director Stacey Peralta. It’s L.A. in the 70s in the middle of a scorching draught and filling up your pool is banned. So what do you if you’re a teenage kid with a board, new polyurethane wheels, and an entire neighborhood of empty pools? You skate ’em, and change a sport forever.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Only the Ball Was White (1980)

This 1980 doc short paid homage to the negro leagues. The film featured some of the best baseball players of the era including Satchel Paige, Quincy Trouppe, Buck Leonard, Jimmy Crutchfield, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Pumping Iron (1977)

This 1977 doc is the oldest on our list. Pumping Iron showcased the bizarre world of competitive bodybuilding. The film also introduced the world to an Austrian strongman named Arnold Schwarzenegger. And it also gave us Lou Ferrigno, who would later make TV history as The Hulk.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

The Other Dream Team (2012)

Mention the ’92 “Dream Team” and most sports fans will know who you’re talking about. But there was another “dream team” at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics that defied athletic and political odds to win a Bronze medal. The Other Dream Team is the story of Lithuania’s men’s basketball team after the fall of the Soviet Union. Future Hall of Famers Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis emerge on the world stage, as the NBA begins to discover the hoop talent that was hidden behind the Iron Curtain. And we learn about the surprising relationship between the team, Bill Walton and The Grateful Dead.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

When We Were Kings (1996)

This Academy Award Winner (‘96), documents the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Forman. The film was also an NAACP Image Award nominee for outstanding News, Talk, or Information - Special. Telling the story of the road to Zaire (now the Republic of the Congo), where the fight was held soon after the country’s liberation from Belgium, to the many months of training in the capital city of Kinshasa, to Ali regaining the heavyweight belt that had been stripped from him years earlier for refusing entry into the Vietnam War, When We Were Kings brings you along for the entire ride.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Stop at Nothing - The Lance Armstrong Story (2014)

Before Lance, filmmaker Alex Holmes exposed Lance Armstrong as a deceitful, power-hungry cheater who do anything to silence those who tried to expose his extensive doping campaign. Stop at Nothing - The Lance Armstrong Story, is a film about how far one man will go to run from the truth.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S Olympic Hockey Team (2001)

Before Disney’s Miracle, this film captured the history of the 1980 U.S Olympic Hockey Team, and their incredible run to Olympic Gold and improbable win over the Soviet Union, an event considered by many as the greatest American sporting event of the 20th century. With interviews from a host of players, including team captain Mike Eruzione (whose goal against the Soviets lifted the Americans to victory), Mark Johnson (the team’s leading scorer who scored two goals to beat the Soviets) and, of course, coach Herb Brooks, who passed away before the film’s release.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (2010)

Two of the most iconic basketball players in the 1980s sit down to discuss their legendary rivalry, legacy, and friendship.

Advertisement
Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice (2011)

This 2011 doc pits two completely different opponents, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, against each other one last time. The film examines the two lives, their different upbringings (McEnroe and New York City kid and Borg who grew up in Sweden), and the pair’s infamous five-set final at Wimbledon in 1980.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

Baseball (1994)

If you’re looking to spend a casual 18 hours learning the history of baseball try Ken Burns’ critically acclaimed docuseries, Baseball. The 9-part series is one of Burns’ signature films.

Advertisement




Illustration for article titled What are the Best Sports Documentaries? Here are Our Picks

The Two Escobars (2010

In 1994, there were two Escobars who were influential in Columbian life and culture. Andres Escobar was the captain of the formidable Columbian men’s national soccer team. Pablo Escobar was a Columbian drug lord and the leader of the Medellín cartel. The Two Escobars is a story of these two, unrelated men and the one time their paths infamously crossed.

Advertisement